The Woman Buried in a New Jersey Parking Lot

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When Mary Ellis died in 1828, her family buried her in a peaceful patch of woods near a bend in the Raritan River. She’s still there, but the trees are long gone—her body now rests in the middle of a movieplex parking lot.

In the 1790s, Mary moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey to live with her sister. There, she fell in love with a local sea captain (who is rumored to have also been a Revolutionary War officer). The couple courted, schmoozed, and made plans for the future. But one day, duty called. The captain had to set sail, and he cruised down the Raritan River to New York Harbor. Before leaving, he gave Mary his trusty horse and promised to return. So Mary waited.

As local legend goes, Mary rode that horse to the riverbank every day, waiting to embrace her sweetheart when he came ashore. But by 1813, he still hadn’t returned. Mary didn’t give up. She bought farmland along the Raritan and kept waiting. In 1828, Mary—now a spinster—died alone and her family buried her near the river.

Fast forward 140 years. It was the 1960s, and plans had been made to build a discount store on what was once Mary’s property. The woods were cleared and the ground was graded to make room for a parking lot. Mary’s grave was smack in the middle, her headstone thankfully untouched by the road roller. Over the years, Mary’s resting place appeared to rise from the pavement. The parking lot was graded lower and lower, leaving her headstone looming eight feet over a sea of blacktop. Today, the parking lot serves an 18-theater movieplex.

Fun fact! Mary’s sea yarn may have inspired the 1972 pop hit “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” The lyrics tell the story of a girl who falls in love with a sailor. Her love, though, goes unrequited—the ocean is the seaman’s true love. The band, Looking Glass, started up at Rutgers’s New Brunswick campus and probably knew Mary’s tale.

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January 23, 2014 - 12:00am
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